The Lesson in the Chicago Tribune ESOP Mess

Here’s a great story on the latest developments in the breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit arising out of the use of the Tribune’s ESOP assets as part of a complicated leveraged buy out. For some really deep background on this case, you can check out my post here from when the case commenced. I have been following it with one eye since it began, and think the summary in this newspaper article is pretty well-balanced. To the extent that there is a broader, more macro/forest and not the trees lesson here, it is the importance of thinking of ESOP holdings in the same way that a company would think of its employees’ 401(k) or other defined contribution holdings, and to both protect and respect them as retirement assets of plan participants. Unfortunately, the fact that ESOP accounts hold employer stock can make them instead appear to be another potential tool of corporate finance. The Tribune case reflects the fact that making use of that stock for transactional purposes can well end up, in at least the outlier cases, with large losses to plan participants, after which the class action bar or the Department of Labor are likely to try to transfer those losses to one or more of the parties involved in the transaction.